Rugby World Cup 2023 format explained

With the tenth Rugby World Cup now underway in France, let’s take a look at the Rugby World Cup format and how it has developed over the years since the first tournament in 1987 which was co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia. We have always had group or pool stages to kick off the competition and we always end up with a Rugby World Cup final and of course a winner, but the exact journey of the tournaments has not been identical.

Rugby World Cup Format
20.06.1987. Auckland, New Zealand. All Black five eighth Grant Fox kicks for goal at the Rugby World Cup Final between the All Blacks and France at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand, on Saturday 20 June 1987. The All Blacks won the match 29-9.
Photo by Icon Sport

Back in the late 80s

Going back 36 years to the first ever tournament, the Rugby World Cup format in New Zealand and Australia had to accommodate 16 teams and 32 matches from group stage to final. The organisers opted for a simple system of four groups of four with the top two sides from each pool progressing to the quarter finals. As is still the case now, the teams who finished top of their group were rewarded with a quarter final tie against a second placed side from another group.

The Rugby World Cup format stayed the same for the next three editions although with the 1991 tournament shared between England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all matches per pool were played in one country with Pool 2’s fixtures shared between Scotland and Ireland.

From 16 to 20 teams in the tournament

The late 90’s and the advent of a new millennium saw the growth of rugby’s festival from 16 to 20 teams with this first taking place during the 1999 Rugby World Cup hosted by Wales. Twenty teams meant a change of Rugby World Cup format also, with the number of teams in each pool staying the same but the number of pools increasing from four to five. But that also meant that the top two could not advance as that would have meant 10 teams progressing.

The quarter-final play offs

Rugby World Cup Format 1999
France’s Christophe Dominici (left) dodges Argentina’s Rolando Martin (right) during their Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match at Lansdowne Road in Dublin on 24th October 1999 Photo : PA Images / Icon Sport


Enter the play-off to the Rugby World Cup format! With the top side from all five groups advancing to the quarter finals, a novel idea was thought up whereby the five runners-up and the best third-placed side would contest quarter-final play-offs to see three more teams go through to the last eight. However, this format was not foolproof as it meant that two of the group stage winners would have to play each other.

A return to four pools

After the play-offs received a widespread thumbs down from all competing nations apart from Argentina who were the third placed side to progress in 1999, the 2003 Rugby World Cup found a solution whilst still maintaining the 20 competitors. One pool was scrapped with an additional team playing in the remaining four. This simpler Rugby World Cup format meant that once again it was just the top two sides who went forward to the quarter-final stage.

A reward for third in the group

The final tweak came in 2007 and we haven’t looked back since. The change makes no difference to who progresses to the quarter final but instead means that the team who finish in the top three places of each pool do not have to undergo the qualification process for the following Rugby World Cup.

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